Communion Of Dreams


“It’s a way to frame the problem,”

As something of a follow up to my last post, there’s a great little item about the development of the Drake equation over on National Geographic. Here’s a good passage:

It’s this kind of guesswork that tends to inflame the Drake equation’s critics, those who complain that the equation isn’t predictive, is too open-ended, and doesn’t provide any answers. But “predictive” isn’t really what Drake ever intended.

“It’s a way to frame the problem,” says MIT astrophysicist Sara Seager, about the equation. “In science, you always need an equation—but this isn’t one you’re going to solve. It just helps you dissect everything.”

Definitely worth reading, as well as thinking about.

Jim Downey



You are here.*

Sometime when I’m really bored I may go to the trouble to try and figure out when the first variety of this image was made — I remember it back to my childhood (I think … you know how tricky memories are):

 

 

Nice little bit of perspective, eh? Which of course is why it has become such a classic image in one form or another.

And that little bit of perspective gives rise to a very nice explanation and exploration of the Fermi Paradox (which I have written about/mentioned many times) over on Wait But Why. Here’s a bit from the closing paragraphs:

As we continue along with our possibly-futile search for extraterrestrial intelligence, I’m not really sure what I’m rooting for. Frankly, learning either that we’re officially alone in the universe or that we’re officially joined by others would be creepy, which is a theme with all of the surreal storylines listed above—whatever the truth actually is, it’s mindblowing.

Beyond its shocking science fiction component, The Fermi Paradox also leaves me with a deep humbling. Not just the normal “Oh yeah, I’m microscopic and my existence lasts for three seconds” humbling that the universe always triggers. The Fermi Paradox brings out a sharper, more personal humbling, one that can only happen after spending hours of research hearing your species’ most renowned scientists present insane theories, change their minds again and again, and wildly contradict each other—reminding us that future generations will look at us the same way we see the ancient people who were sure that the stars were the underside of the dome of heaven, and they’ll think “Wow they really had no idea what was going on.”

 

Of course, this whole question is at the very heart of Communion of Dreams. And, in a way, also at the heart of St Cybi’s Well. You’ll see.

But for now, go enjoy that post at Wait But Why. It’s quite good.

 

Jim Downey



Turn over an old leaf.

As a book & document conservator, I’ve had the good fortune to see, handle, and work on some really interesting historical artifacts. Just the other day a client came to me for an assessment of a ratty old paperback book which had been in her mother’s underwear drawer for the better part of the last fifty years. Don’t think it sounds particularly special or interesting? Well, if it’s the right kind of paperback … yeah, there’s a *very* good chance that the book she brought me would be just the fifth known copy of that very important first edition. I recommended that she deal with a qualified rare book appraiser, though everything about the book — the paper quality and age, the sewing structure and condition, the amount of dust and dirt it had collected, even the smell of the thing — all fit perfectly into what I would expect of a book printed in that time and that place and then used and loved for a century or so, then put away and essentially forgotten for another century.

So, yeah, I do get to see, handle, and work on some pretty cool stuff, some of which I have documented here and over on my professional site.

But there is one thing which is so iconic, which so perfectly focuses on a critical moment in history, that when I was first asked to work on it more than 20 years ago I knew that my talents and training had been accepted by the then-director of Special Collections at the University of Missouri – Columbia.  This item:

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I would expect that anyone who would find themselves reading my blog would already know the history and importance of the Gutenberg Bible, but just in case here’s the intro for the Wikipedia entry:

The Gutenberg Bible (also known as the 42-line Bible, the Mazarin Bible or the B42) was the first major book printed in the West using movable type. It marked the start of the “Gutenberg Revolution” and the age of the printed book in the West. Widely praised for its high aesthetic and artistic qualities,[1] the book has an iconic status. Written in Latin, the Gutenberg Bible is an edition of the Vulgate, printed by Johannes Gutenberg, in Mainz, Germany, in the 1450s. Forty-eight copies, or substantial portions of copies, survive, and they are considered to be among the most valuable books in the world, even though no complete copy has been sold since 1978.

The title page from this presentation case explains a bit more why it is just a ‘leaf’ from one of the Bibles:

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Basically, someone took a partial copy of one of the known authentic Bibles, separated it into individual leaves, mounted those into this presentation case, then sold those to collectors and institutions which wanted to have their own sample of the Bible. Each one is now worth on the order of $50,000.

Now, you might notice (if you dig around into the data on these images) that these are recent pictures all taken with my smartphone (and no flash). That’s because a week or so ago I brought the leaf home from Special Collections for some additional work. No big deal, honestly, just a little cleaning and a minor bit of repair. Here’s what the leaf looked like before (front and back):

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Front of page before treatment.

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Back of page before treatment.

 

And here’s what it looked like after:

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Front of page after treatment.

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Back of page after treatment.

 

Yeah, not a huge difference. But if you look closely, particularly on the lower fore-edge corner, you can see that it is notably cleaner. And there’s also an almost invisible repair in that area on the back of the page where a slight fold was weakening the corner. So I reinforced it with a bit of handmade kozo paper (from the UICB – where I trained as a conservator), and a little bit of wheatpaste. Here’s a detail of the repair in process, before the excess was trimmed off:

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And here it is complete:

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Almost, but not quite, invisible. That’s in keeping with current conservation practices, where you don’t want a repair to be a distraction, but you do want it to be evident to the trained eye, so they know the ‘honest’ history of the item and whether it has been treated/repaired.

To be perfectly honest in another way, working on this leaf was just completely straight-forward. Cleaning and simple kozo repairs are about the  simplest conservation tasks performed, and in no way are a challenge to my abilities.

And yet …

And yet, because of what that leaf is, what it represents, I kept it locked away in the safe until I could devote a full afternoon of work to taking care of it. Until I had completely gone through a ritual cleaning of my bindery space. Until I was at the very ‘top of my game’ in terms of focus and attention. Until I was absolutely certain that I could do the tasks required with my full and total respect. Call it Zen & the Art of Conservation if you want. Or just call it a recognition that I am only one set of hands in a long chain who for a moment (once again) had a responsibility to both the future and the past.

The leaf has already been returned to the care of Special Collections.

 

Jim Downey

PS: Tucked in the back of presentation case was this document from the first treatment I performed. Thought I’d share it as well, just for grins.

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Vast vision must improve our sight.*

Remember this from a post a couple months back?

Darnell shook his head, but peered closer where Eleazar pointed. He could see something faint on the rock, but couldn’t make the image resolve. So he took out his hand-held, removed the stylus. Pointing the stylus camera and the flash on the phone at the image, he tapped an icon on the screen. There were a series of quick flashes, and the screen filled with a close-up of the stone face. Eleazar looked on with some amusement as Darnell used a slider at the bottom of the screen to go up and down the spectrum, changing the image and bringing out details otherwise hidden in it. Darnell glanced up at Eleazar, saw his amusement, and explained “Multispectral imaging. Not nearly the resolution or range of real remote sensing equipment, but handy for some things.”

“Particularly when you’re going blind, eh?”

“Yeah. And until I can find my miracle, this helps.” Darnell smiled slightly, a wry, almost sad smile. “But the range of the image is well beyond what even good human sight can see – what even you can see.”

 

A cool article with some very fun interactive tools to see how the different ranges of animal eyes compare to ours:

Some animals, including your pets, may be partially colorblind, and yet certain aspects of their vision are superior to your own. Living creatures’ visual perception of the surrounding world depends on how their eyes process light. Humans are trichromats—meaning that our eyes have three types of the photoreceptors known as cone cells, which are sensitive to the colors red, green, and blue. A different type of photoreceptors, called rods, detect small amounts of light; this allows us to see in the dark. Animals process light differently—some creatures have only two types of photoreceptors, which renders them partially colorblind, some have four, which enables them to see ultraviolet light, and others can detect polarized light, meaning light waves that are oscillating in the same plane.

“None of us can resist thinking that we can imagine what another animal is thinking,” says Thomas Cronin, a professor at the University of Maryland who studies visual physiology. But while guessing animals’ thoughts is a fantasy, looking at the world through their eyes is possible.

 

Check it out.

 

Jim Downey

*Of course.



Tough call.

Interesting site/idea, though it would be a tough call to pick a book …

 

I’d be almost nervous to hear what someone might say about one of my books. But in spite of making solid progress with the writing of St Cybi’s Well, I seem to be at low ebb in terms of my self-confidence/bipolar cycle, so it might just be due to that.

 

Jim Downey



Revisiting a very old friend.

My profession of being a book conservator is fairly unusual, and since I write about it and post images occasionally, I tend to get questions about it fairly often. The other day I got a nice query from graduate student Aaron Hain at the University of North Texas about a research assignment which included this:

The assignment is to include “a general discussion of major theories and practices and the controversies” in relation to dealing with different historic bindings. As the paper is only about 4-5 pages long, it’s obviously only able to be either very general or to cover only a couple of binding types. Could you give maybe a brief coverage of how you would deal with the conservation/preservation of a couple of different binding types and possible issues that you can run into when dealing with those bindings? In particular, the 1518 Ovid in limp vellum on your projects page caught my attention and was the one that got me to e-mail you.

 

Since it’s been 5+ years since I last posted about that, I thought I would share my brief response here.

* * *

Current practice in book conservation is to respect both the original structure as well as the history of what the book has had done to it over time. Basically, that means that I seldom try to remove all traces of damage, or rebinding, or repairs, or notes from a book and try to turn it into some pristine example of what it was when first made. Usually I try to accommodate those changes, to preserve the character of the book insofar as possible. They are, after all, part of the book’s provenance, and can teach us a great deal.

But sometimes it is necessary and appropriate to remove previous bindings/repairs, if they themselves extensively damage or threaten the continued existence of the original book. When I encounter such a book I will confer with the client and discuss options. One such case about five years ago was a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses printed in Venice and dated 1518. I have documented the work performed here: 1518 copy of Ovid

As you can see, we decided to put the book into a limp vellum structure, which was fairly typical for a simple and relatively inexpensive binding at that time.

Why this choice? The 19th century binding the book had been in was completely breaking down. The sewing structure was failing. The leather was deteriorated. There was nothing particularly noteworthy to the style or type of binding, and the materials it was made of would continue to cause damage to the text block. So the client elected to remove that binding, though I believe that they have kept it (separately) as part of the book’s history.

But since we had no records of what the book would have looked like its binding originally, we decided to go with a very simple and neutral structure. A blank slate, as it were, so as not to suggest a false history to future readers/custodians/conservators. While the style and material of the limp vellum binding are fairly timeless in themselves, the archival endpapers I added would clearly date the era when that binding had been created, without imposing an early-21st century aesthetic on the book. And if need be, all or part of the structure and materials could be easily removed in the future.

* * *

Just thought I’d share that. And I do love how that binding turned out.

 

If you haven’t yet, be sure to take a few minutes to enjoy the full set of pictures and text about the project.

 

Jim Downey

 



“This book is a comfort. This book is a public service.”

That’s how a new review of Her Final Year opens. Here’s another bit:

The caregiver puts up with that out of love and decency. This book describes these things in the form of daily and weekly accounts as well as diary log pages of personal fear and depression and exasperation and recurring bubbling senses of humor. I loved this because it made me cry and it made me laugh. It’s not all drudgery. It’s hysterically funny at times. But it wouldn’t be funny at all if you didn’t love the patient. This is a book of love…

 

So often people see the words “Alzheimer’s” or “dementia” or even “care-giving” and just move on, thinking that the book (and the experience) is nothing but darkness and depression. And yeah, there is darkness there, but to borrow a phrase from Communion of Dreams/Heidegger:  “That which emerges from darkness gives definition to the light.”

We’re coming up on the three-year publishing anniversary (July 15). If you haven’t yet read Her Final Year go ahead and do so. If you want to wait a month, the Kindle edition will be available for free download around the anniversary.

And if you have read it, please consider posting your own review on Amazon or elsewhere. It helps.

Thank you.

 

Jim Downey



A state of matter, or a state of mind?

From page six of Communion of Dreams:

His expert was one of best, one of only a few hundred based on the new semifluid CPU technology that surpassed the best thin-film computers made by the Israelis. But it was a quirky technology, just a few years old, subject to problems that conventional computers didn’t have, and still not entirely understood. Even less settled was whether the experts based on this technology could finally be considered to be true AI. The superconducting gel that was the basis of the semifluid CPU was more alive than not, and the computer was largely self-determining once the projected energy matrix surrounding the gel was initiated by another computer. Building on the initial subsistence program, the computer would learn how to refine and control the matrix to improve its own ‘thinking’. The thin-film computers had long since passed the Turing test, and these semifluid systems seemed to be almost human. But did that constitute sentience? Jon considered it to be a moot point, of interest only to philosophers and ethicists.

 

And, perhaps, physicists:

And while the problem of consciousness is far from being solved, it is finally being formulated mathematically as a set of problems that researchers can understand, explore and discuss.

Today, Max Tegmark, a theoretical physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, sets out the fundamental problems that this new way of thinking raises. He shows how these problems can be formulated in terms of quantum mechanics and information theory. And he explains how thinking about consciousness in this way leads to precise questions about the nature of reality that the scientific process of experiment might help to tease apart.

Tegmark’s approach is to think of consciousness as a state of matter, like a solid, a liquid or a gas. “I conjecture that consciousness can be understood as yet another state of matter. Just as there are many types of liquids, there are many types of consciousness,” he says.

 

Good article. Read the whole thing.

 

Jim Downey

Via MetaFilter.



It’s a test.

Today’s xkcd triggered a thought: that we can think of the challenges of climate change as being akin to a planetary gom jabbar. Do we have the ability to endure short-term pain and survive, or do we give in to our immediate short-term desires and suffer the consequences?

 

Jim Downey



By the book.

From Chapter 7 of St. Cybi’s Well:

Long training had taught him to put his trust in facts. In objective, testable reality. You didn’t fly a space shuttle – even one which had been stripped down to the bare essentials for transporting sealed sleeper modules – by the seat of your pants. That would very quickly get you killed. You flew it by the book, with close attention to your instrumentation and computer systems. Because your instincts would lie to you. Your hopes and dreams had no place in orbital calculations. The only miracles which existed were the ones created by careful science, proven engineering, and rigorous quality control.

 

And from a great entry today on Bad Astronomy:

The European Space Agency has put together a fantastic and enthralling video that goes through the steps taken to bring the space travelers down. This is seriously worth 20 minutes of your time.

 

Yeah, it is really cool to watch them go through it all by the book. Find the time to watch it.

 

Jim Downey




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